An obliging crocodile (XLVIII:3)

CHAPTER XLVIII. Of the daily manual labour
30 Mar. 30 July. 29 Nov.

anappointed to the various offices. But if any one should be so negligent and slothful, as to be either unwilling or unable to study or to read, let some task be given him to do, that he be not idle. To brethren who are weak or delicate, let there be given such work or occupation as to prevent them either from being idle, or from being so oppressed by excessive labour as to be driven away. Their weakness must be taken into account by the Abbot.

Saint Benedict begins today by speaking of Sunday. For the Desert Fathers, no less than for all Christians, Sunday was the day of the Holy Mysteries, the Eucharistic day. We know that, in the year 304, a group of Christians from Abitinia in North Africa were discovered offering the Holy Sacrifice on Sunday in contravention of the law of the Emperor Diocletian that forbade it. They were all arrested and taken before the magistrate, who asked them why they disobeyed the law. Emeritus, the spokesman of the Christians, answered: Sine Dominico non possumus, “Without this thing that is the Lord’s, that is the Sunday celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist, we cannot live.”

The Desert Fathers were familiar with this story of the Abitene Martyrs. Their witness is not unrelated to the traditional Eucharistic understanding of the fourth petition of Pater Noster, as evidenced by Saint Jerome’s translation of Matthew 6:11: “Give us this day our daily (our supersubstantial) bread.” Panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie. Pope Benedict, in Chapter 5 of his book, Jesus of Nazareth, says, “The Fathers of the Church were practically unanimous in understanding the fourth petition of the Our Father as a Eucharistic petition.” Sunday, then, was for the Desert Fathers the day on which they received the Supersubstantial Bread from the altar, “the living Bread come down from heaven” (John 6:51) that made their life possible. There is an astonishing story in the Lives of the Fathers about the importance of Sunday:

On another occasion [Abba Helenus] visited a certain monastery on a Sunday and found that they were not observing the solemnity of the day. Upon asking why, he was told that the priest who lived on the other side of the river had not come. No one indeed was willing to cross the river for fear of the crocodiles. “If you like,” he said, “I shall go across and get him.” And he immediately made his way to the riverbank. He called upon the name of the Lord, and suddenly a crocodile appeared, ready to stop being a terror to mankind and change into a water taxi for the righteous. The crocodile offered Abba Helenus his back, which he accepted, all fear cast aside, and was thus carried to the opposite back. Abba Helenus went straight up to the priest and begged him to come to the brothers. Now his clothing was quite mean and disheveled; the priest wondered wherever this man had come from and asked him what he wanted. But when he realised that Abba Helenus was indeed a man of God, he began to follow him to the river. The priest mentioned that there was no boat to be found in which they could cross, but Abba Helenus said to him, “Don’t worry, Father. I am now about to call up a water taxi.” And in a loud voice he commanded the beast to appear. The crocodile came as soon as it heard his voice, and peacefully offered his back. Helenus got on first and then invited the priest to do so. “Come on, don’t be afraid,” he said. But the priest was so frightened at the appearance of this monster that he took to his heels and fled. Fear and amazement fell on all his companions when they saw Abba Helenus being carried across the waters of the river by a crocodile. When he had crossed over, he led the beast up the bank with him and said, “Death would be a better thing for you than to be burdened with the guilt of so many assaults and homicides.” And immediately the beast burst asunder and died.

For Saint Benedict, Sunday is not only the Day of the Holy Sacrifice; it is also the day par excellence of lectio divina. Saint Benedict, while upholding the principle that on Sunday all ought  occupy themselves in lectio divina, recognises all the same that there will be brothers who are negligent, or slothful, or unwilling, or incapable of devoting their Sundays wholly to reading. These brothers, he says, are to be given some task, lest they remain idle.

Saint Benedict has already said at the beginning of this chapter: “Idleness is an enemy of the soul.” No sooner does the devil see an idle monk than he seizes the opportunity to assail him with troubling thoughts. What sort of troubling thoughts? The devil aims at getting a monk to ruminate over the past or to speculate about the future. In both instances, he wants to keep a monk from living in the present moment. God comes to meet us in the present moment. Ruminating over the past nourishes resentments, foments bitterness, and blinds one to the will of God in the present moment.  Not infrequently, this takes the form of reviewing past decisions obsessively: “I should have done this. I should have said that.”  Fretting over the future also blinds one to the will of God in the present moment. I refer to this sort of anxiety as the terrible “what ifs.” Père Ange, the wise old Dominican exorcist of Lyon, teaches the wisdom of being a man without a past and without a future, that is, of living in the present moment.

Saint Benedict concludes this chapter with one of the great principles of the Holy Rule:

To brethren who are weak or delicate, let there be given such work or occupation as to prevent them either from being idle, or from being so oppressed by excessive labour as to be driven away. Their weakness must be taken into account by the Abbot.

In some way, the mind and heart of Saint Benedict are expressed in this last sentence: Quorum imbecillitas ab abbate consideranda est. The abbot must never forget the weak. Saint Benedict would have the abbot leave no monk behind, cast no monk cast aside, and despise no infirmity, lest God say to him:

The weak you have not strengthened, and that which was sick you have not healed, that which was broken you have not bound up, and that which was driven away you have not brought again, neither have you sought that which was lost: but you ruled over them with rigour, and with a high hand. (Ezechiel 34:4)

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